Brilliant analysis of London 2012, a benchmark for future sport event and legacy studies

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Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


Phil Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track?: East London and the Post Olympics 320 sidor, pbk, ill. London: Lawrence & Wishart 2013 ISBN 978-1-907103-62-9

Phil Cohen
On the Wrong Side of the Track?: East London and the Post Olympics
320 pages, pbk, ill.
London: Lawrence & Wishart 2013
ISBN 978-1-907103-62-9

Scholarly books dealing with the Olympics and other sports mega-events, especially those dealing with specific Olympic Games or tournaments, tend to have a common format. The author(s) often adopt a pro- or anti-Games position (there is seldom any middle ground), explore the financing and levels of disruption/development (depending on the degree of pro- or anti-orientation) associated with the Games and their staging, reflect on the ‘legacy’ of the Games, consider the various forms of mediated engagements and may make some effort to evaluate the politics (usually institutional) of the events. There are, of course, from time to time variations to this rule, such as Jules Boykoff’s discussions of anti-Olympic activism, but for the most part the format is fairly similar and driven by the conventions of social scientific writing and an emerging orthodoxy in the form of argument.

The first thing to note about Phil Cohen’s excellent On the Wrong Side of the Track? is that he does not adopt this form of argument and neither does he adopt the rigidities of a pro- and anti-Games position. The book is structured as a dialogue between two narratives: in the first we have the stories London (including the East End) tells itself (and the world) about the East End, while in the second we have a more fluid arrangement of the stories the planning for, development of venues for and two weeks of the 2012 Olympics told about the East End/London/England/UK and the talking back from the East End to the dominant London narrative. The evidence Cohen draws on for these multiple, interweaving and overlapping narratives is extensive – ethnographic work over several years in East London communities, close engagement with the Olympic Park workforce, analyses of the various opening and closing ceremonies as well as cultural work (visual and other arts, literary texts and other ways we make manifest our imagined communities). At the heart of this analysis, however, is narrative – the stories told by and about London and its component parts. The focus in this case is the various ways various narratives of London, including those of its Olympics, imagine, construct, present and explain the city’s east as a wild, disruptive, disorganising, stable, deep-rooted, community network oriented component in a city where these narratives incorporate and run across stories told by Power (the dominant ideals of west and central London).

These dialogues between narratives allow Cohen to step beyond the pro- and anti-Olympic dichotomy to develop what he calls a Para-Olympic perspective, while acknowledging the difficulty of the prefix as meaning beyond or outside as well as subordinate and irregular or dysfunctional. By working through these etymological tensions Cohen presents Para-Olympic approaches as a form of ‘third-space’, as fully and properly dialectical, not dealing with either/or but with dialogue, struggle and contradiction (in the philosophical-but-not-quite-Hegelian sense). He therefore argues that in Olympic studies this Para-Olympic approach demands that the conventional analyses, the pro- and anti-, the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ legacies, the panoptic of “forensic social science” (p21) must be put aside to consider the relations between and within the experience as a means to get a hold of what is actually going on. This dialectical approach therefore makes this book far more fluid and engaged with the subtleties of the Games as experienced and as narrative than are many of the more common and increasingly conventional Olympic (and other mega-event) analyses.

This exploration of multiple economies is further extended through analyses of mediatised economies along a number of tropes.

A significant strength of the book is Cohen’s attention to the work of the Olympics (other readers will find other vital foci; the voices of East Enders and the priority given to their narratives is one many are likely to celebrate). The emphasis on work-as-labour in this dialectical approach allows Cohen to consider the contradictions between the labour of venue construction and the labour of the athletes who will perform in those venues, as well as the tensions between and mimetic characteristics of the ideals of masculinity associated with the physical labour of construction and the masculinities associated with physicality of sports performance. This dialectical approach also opens up exciting approaches to the economics of the Olympics (and by implication other sporting mega-events) through discussions of the relative characteristics of the market economy of the games and their moral economy leading to a suggestion that there is an Olympic compact between three forms of economic cultures – one of endowment, a hospitality culture and an enterprise culture. This exploration of multiple economies is further extended through analyses of mediatised economies along a number of tropes. This is a rich, nuanced and complex but not complicated analysis that bears multiple revisits.

Cohen suggests that for those interested specifically in the London games rather than the larger questions of multiple narratives of London can avoid (as in not bother to read) the first three chapters exploring London’s narratives of the East End. He is, of course, right, these chapters can be avoided but at the expense of a fuller understanding of his analyses of the moral and cultural economies of the Games and of the dialogue between narratives involved in his discussion of both sets of opening and closing ceremonies; passing over the first three chapters is likely to result in a reading of the Games’ narratives in national terms rather than the much more localised reading of the spaces and places lived in by people before, during and after the Games.

In addition to the book, there is extensive material available on-line including picture galleries and documents in support of the analysis and discussion; the book is well illustrated with high production standards (which may well have added a bit to the cost, but it is well worth it).

This excellent exploration of what Ken Worpole (in the blurb) has called “the cargo cult known as the 2012 Olympics” challenges other analysts to break away from the forensic empiricism of conventional social science and adopt a more dialectical approach to consider the lived experiences of the Games. There is, of course, still a place for close empiricist analyses, especially in the economic and related discussions, but without attention to Cohen’s narrative oriented, Para-Olympic framework our understandings of not only the Olympics but other sporting mega-events as well will remain deficient. We can only hope to see similar analyses of this year’s Sochi shenanigans and recent and forthcoming extravaganzas in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2014

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